A Midsummer Night's Dream
Also see Bill's review of Robin and the 7 Hoods
In San Diego's Summer of Shakespeare, the La Jolla Playhouse chimes in with a production that pulls out all the stops. There is a Victorian living room set (by Neil Patel) that turns upside down during the dream sequence, servants who turn into acrobats and aerialists during the dream (including Matthew Cusick, a former Cirque du Soleil performer who balances Ken Berkeley on his shoulder and outstretched arm), a live performance (by the San Diego Youth Symphony) of a score by Mark Bennett that features much of the Felix Mendelssohn incidental music written for the play, and some imaginative puppetry by Basil Twist.
Many of these ideas originated in the famous 1970 Peter Brook production for the Royal Shakespeare Company (a production included in dramaturg Shirley Fishman's helpful program essay), but Mr. Ashley's version manages to breathe new life into them, rather than simply repeat them.
The burning question with any production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is, "Whose dream is it?" Part of the greatness of the play is that it can be any number of characters' dream. There is Hermia (Amelia Campbell), who is being married against her will by her father (San Diego Shakespeare veteran Jonathan McMurtry) to Demetrius (Seán Mahon), while her true love is Lysander (Tim Hopper). Her friend Helena (J. Smith-Cameron) has been rejected by Demetrius but dreams of loving him. There is also a reluctant wedding planned between Theseus (Daniel Oreskes) and Hippolyta (Charlayne Woodard), and Theseus dreams that Hippolyta would love him as much as he loves her. Preparing to entertain at this latter wedding is a comically dysfunctional group of actors who dream that fame and fortune will come their way from the exposure they'll receive. One of their number, Nick Bottom (Lucas Caleb Rooney) is particularly ardent in expressing this dream.
The play changes, depending on whose dream is emphasized. One of the cleverest productions I've seen focused on Bottom's dream, which turned the forest to which the dreamers were transported into an erotic paradise. This version required shifting speeches among characters and rearranging the order of the scenes to make its point.
Mr. Ashley has made a more conventional choice: he emphasizes Theseus' dream. In this dream, Theseus becomes Oberon, king of the fairies; Hippolyta becomes Titania, Oberon's queen; and Theseus' servants become the fairies over which he reins. With the aid of his fairy band, particularly Puck, his personal servant (Martin Moran), Oberon uses magic to turn reluctance into limerence, especially in the case of Titania. When Theseus' dream is done, he finds a much more willing Hippolyta awaiting him.
The large cast has varying amounts of experience with Shakespeare, and it shows. Cast members have been encouraged to deliver their speeches plainly, and mostly that works (though Mr. Oreskes' accent takes some getting used to). Ms. Woodard has a strong stage presence and dominates the action whenever she appears. There is a bit of a disconnect between her dominance and the centrality of Theseus/Oberon as a character, especially since Ms. Woodard usually shares the stage with Mr. Oreskes. The plain speech also serves to put the characters' emotions into the background, so the production comes off as cooler and more detached than I would have liked.
Nevertheless, the visual and aural elements are strong and are sure to keep audiences fascinated throughout the performance.
A Midsummer Night's Dream continues through August 22 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Tickets ($31 - $66) are available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting the La Jolla Playhouse website.
La Jolla Playhouse presents A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare, with music by Mark Bennett and Felix Mendelssohn. Directed by Christopher Ashley with Neil Patel, set designer; David C. Woolard, costume designer; Howell Binkley, lighting designer; Leon Rothenberg, sound designer; Eric Stern, music director/conductor; Basil Twist, puppet designer; and Andrew Pacho, choreographer.
The cast includes Charlayne Woodard as "Hippolyta/Titania," J. Smith-Cameron as "Helena," Martin Moran as "Puck," Jonathan McMurtry as "Egeus," Amelia Campbell as "Hermia," Maggie Carney as "Peter Quince," Matthew Patrick Davis as "Tom Snout/Wall," Zach Harrison as "Starveling/Moonshine," Tim Hopper as "Lysander," Seán Mahon as "Demetrius," Hugo Medina as "Snug/Lion," Amanda Naughton as "First Fairy," Daniel Oreskes as "Theseus/Oberon," Chris Reed as "Flute/Thisbe," Lucas Caleb Rooney as "Nick Bottom," as well as Ken Berkeley, Matt Cusick and Tatyana Petruk as Fairy-Acrobats and Kyle Anderson, Cate Campbell, Maritxell Carrero, Sarah Garcia, Anne Stella and Bowman Wright as Fairies.
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